A sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Paul E. Ellis Jackson
From Psalm 51
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right[b] spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. –The Talmud
There’s a powerful scene in the Steven Spielberg movie, based on the true story, “Schindler’s List” when the protagonist, Oscar Schindler, is overwhelmed with the sheer number of people being sent to their deaths in the Nazi death camps. He turns to his accountant, Itzhak Stern, and laments “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” And Stern reminds him that there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of him. Itzhak implores him to look at them. Look at the lives he saved—don’t mourn the ones you couldn’t. Schindler shouts at him: “If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…” And Itzhak Stern simply comforts him with this line: “There will be generations because of what you did. You did so much.”
How often do we feel like this? How often are we confronted with the overwhelming need of humanity? How often do we all lament: Why me? How can I possibly help all of these people who need help? What can one person do in a world that has such great need?
In the book The Path—What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life—we find that this question isn’t framed correctly–At least according to the Chinese Philosophers. To better understand the problems facing humanity, we need to understand how humans have put patterns on the natural world. Xunzi, a Confucian scholar born in 310 BCE, believed that humans should never accept themselves just as they are. His argument is that he believed we should never accept what we think is natural to us.
Now this may seem counter-intuitive. Aren’t we told to be true to ourselves? Xunzi knows that we all have the altruistic impulse to rush in and save someone from a fire or stop a child from walking into the street, but Xunzi didn’t want us to forget our less altruistic impulses in everyday moments. Our prides himself on being kind and loving, I’m always a little surprised at how quickly I can descend into rage when someone cuts me off in traffic—or drives too slowly—or too quickly—or, my favorite, pulls into my lane and then slows down. And don’t get me started about what happens to Wichita drivers when there’s just a little bit of rain on the road. You’d think we were driving through Noah’s flood.
So think about those times in our lives when we aren’t acting in the best interests of humanity: Gossiping about a friend’s misfortunes and by doing so spilling confidential secrets; Stewing and fretting for days over a critical remark someone made to us; binge shopping online to quell our anxieties; indulging in other self-destructive behaviors to try and feel some sort of peace. Think what it would be like if we always allowed our worst, undomesticated sides to be on display all the time? If we were “true to our authentic selves” in every moment. Xunzi writes: “Human nature is bad. Its goodness comes from artifice. It is in the nature of humans to be born with a fondness for profit…they are born with hates and dislikes…that is why people will inevitably fall into conflict and struggle if they simply follow along with their nature and their dispositions…” Remember, these words were written over 2300 year ago. For Xunzhi, the notion that “natural is better” was dangerous. And he wasn’t just talking about human nature—he was talking about the entire natural world—our dangerous planet.
The planet Earth is dangerous. We tend to take for granted that we will be okay, but the third rock from the sun has plenty to kill frail humans on a regular basis—we have to live in wood and brick structures because we would die in the extreme temperatures we encounter. We have grown complacent about the tornado threat in our area, but ask anyone who survived the turmoil of the 2011 F-5 monster that hit Joplin. And don’t get me started on earthquakes.
Xunzi has a great story that he retold that explains how humanity deals with the natural world: “In distant antiquity, at times the rains would come, at times they would not. No one knew when. At times it would be cold, at times it would be hot. When it was cold, humans, who had no clothes to wear, were at risk of freezing to death. When rain did not fall, plants did not grow. When the rains came, plants, and berries, grew, which humans could eat to nourish themselves, but just as often the plants were poison, and made them ill.
Gradually, humans began to understand that these events were not random. They came to realize when it would rain and when it would not; when it would be cold and when it would be warm. They began to realize which plants they could eat, and which were poison. They began to domesticate the plants. They would plant them according to the changes in the weather, which they came to know as seasons. The process continued as they cleared more ground for planting, domesticated animals to help with the process, and drove out those animals they could not tame.
Eventually, what had once seemed like unpredictable chaos of natural phenomena—random rains, wind, cold, heat, nourishment and poison—were turned into a harmonious system. That which grew from the earth was now correlated with the larger patterns of the heavens. But this was not natural. Humans had domesticated the world. Humans had made it so that these disparate phenomena became a harmonious set of processes.”
This ancient legend about the creation of agriculture reminds us that the world as we know it was constructed by humans. It was patterned by humans. Humans give pattern to the world. Xunzi reminds us of this—we are born into this crazy, wild, dangerous world, but the patterns we see in it were created by us. He writes: “Heaven and earth gave birth to us. We give pattern to Heaven and Earth. We form a triad with Heaven and Earth, are the summation of myriad things, and are the father and mother of the people. Without us, Heaven and Earth have no pattern.” Xunzi thought that just accepting the world as it is, including our own human natures, was inherently limiting and ultimately destructive. He asks us to think about how differently we would live if we just understood how much of the world is already a human creation. A human pattern. And if we have made the world, the patterns, that we experience, then shouldn’t we be asking ourselves how to find our proper place within it? Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we have structured the patterns of the world well?\
Xunzi thought that this artifice, this human created patterning, was important. He thought that human nature was like a crooked piece of wood that needed to be made straight. But in contrast with many later thinkers, some of whom still influence our institutions, especially the modern Orthodox “church”, Xunzi believed that our human nature could be changed. Emmanuel Kant and John Calvin believed otherwise—that we are doomed to remain in our crooked, human, base nature. And we see this reflected in Christian church doctrine that continues to this day—that the only way to overcome our base natures is submission to the church. And we kknow how dangerous that is.
But Xunzi, like his predecessor Confucius, believed that we could use this artifice, these patterns, to our benefit. We have to use the artifice well-and this requires careful teaching. Education is seen as one of the primary ways in which humanity can overcome its crookedness and become whole. This learning how to use the artifice, the patterns, is how we corral our spontaneous natures and our unruly emotions. A toddler throws a noisy tantrum when she is tired and hungry and doesn’t get her way—but as we grow and learn, we put away these childish behaviors. Of course, we sometimes default to the toddler within—when we’re tired or ill or when someone pulls in front of us in traffic and then slows down.
The common good of humanity has known this about human nature for centuries and has created an artifice, a pattern that helps us live together somewhat harmoniously. This is referred to sometimes as the Social Contract. We develop laws and social mores and ways of behaving that allow us to interact with each other in a civilized manner. There’s a good word about patterning right there—civilized. We know that if we are going to live together, we need to adopt a common set of assumptions and a way of behaving in the common sphere. If you think about it, this is in direct conflict with our selfish human natures. And there is great tension in this. But in that tension is wonderful energy—energy that has seen humanity in its collective glory conquer disease, tame rivers and control complex natural systems—energy that has allowed humanity to slip the surly bonds of earth and cast itself out into the great void of space. Often, when I gaze at the moon, I am overwhelmed with the realization that humans have walked upon that distant, barren rock. It often seems at times that there is nothing, nothing that the collective spirit of humanity can accomplish.
And because of this human nature and this need for artificial patterns to assist us on our journeys, we take up philosophies. We enter into covenants with each other. We study ancient doctrines and we try on behaviors that help make us better humans. We look at the lives of the great thinkers—we may choose to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and devote our lives to peace and tranquility. We may be attracted to the rules and patterns of Islam and devote our lives to that religion. We study the great Chinese philosophers and see if their thoughts resonate in our lives. We may find in Jesus of Nazareth a pattern of life that appeals to us. Or we may choose some other way to make meaning in our lives. I put the words of the psalmist in your bulletins to remind that each day we can start anew, with a clean heart and the desire to do what is best for us all: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Words to refresh us and remind us that we aren’t alone. Words that remind us that today is a new day and we have a new chance to make the world just a little bit better.
When we choose to interact with humanity, with the common good, when we choose to enter the world of humans, we adopt traits and behaviors that allow us to live together. And we have developed consequences for those who cannot live together—for those who fail to become part of the bigger picture. We remove them, when we can, so they can no longer harm humanity, we set them aside– and if they choose to rejoin us—we let them out of jail and they can be part of our communities again. Part of our agreement to live together requires us to abandon certain childish, selfish behaviors. It’s not always fun, but unless you want to live in the woods as a hermit or have humanity remove you from the scene, we have to do so.
Because to give in to that human nature, and use the patterns that we’ve establish in a negative sense, in a way that perverts our humanity, we get great sins—we get White Supremacy movements and ignorant ranting online—we get whole groups of people who revert to the toddler within and then seek to impose their will on the rest of us—we get demagogues and fear-mongers and all other types of humanity that seek to use us to their selfish ends. With this we get blindness to the suffering of others. We get people who seek their dominion at the expense of humanity. We get Auschwitz.
Oscar Schindler did what he could to save as many Jews as he possibly could from the Nazi death machine. The Talmud, those commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, reminds that when you save one human life, you save humanity. That within the act of doing the right thing, of doing something that helps someone else, of acting beyond your toddler, selfish, immature self, in effect saves all humanity.
Just as Oscar Schindler was overwhelmed by his inability to save more lives, we are often faced with our own limitations in what we can do. So what are we to do? How do we stave the rush of need that we encounter on a daily basis? How do we help so many people who need help? I’ve always believed that we do more for the world in our small, daily acts of kindness and love than if we were to be able to somehow magically change human nature. You can change the world, right now, by your simple acts of kindness and decency. Our selfish human nature wants us to close up—to protect ourselves—when the stranger approaches us with their hand held out. But when we put something into that very human hand, whether it is a dollar or a cup of coffee or a word of encouragement—whatever we give—helps to make all of humanity better. You small gifts of love and kindness coalesce into a huge wave of love and kindness that can, indeed, change the world. For when you change the world for one suffering soul, you change the world for us all.
I’m grateful for this congregation that sees in itself a microcosm of humanity and works to make this world better for us all.
Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. The Path: what Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.